A few months back, Scott told us about Spielberg's horrible/amazing concept for E.T. 2, which understandably never got made. And when studying up on the Jaws sequels for last month's horror trivia (it was a summer theme so I assumed there would be a round on the series, and there was!), I discovered that Spielberg actually did consider returning for Jaws 2 for a brief period, but Close Encounters got in the way, so they made the sequels without him. Spielberg doesn't even have phony producer credits on the films. So it seems he's not exactly gung ho about doing sequels, but that hasn't stopped him from keeping the Jurassic Park series alive, directing the first sequel himself and sticking around to produce the next two. All but the third broke box office records - the original crushed too many to recall, Lost World had the biggest opening weekend of all time for a while, and Jurassic World shattered several records, most significantly being the first film to earn $500m worldwide in a single weekend. So obviously the public is as hungry as the on-screen villains (heroes?) when it comes to these things... but why aren't any of the sequels actually GOOD?
I'm sure someone's already crafting their response that consists of some variation of "(whatever one they liked) was great! Sure the script was garbage but I had a lot of fun!" I never said any of them weren't fun (though JP3 really tests my limits), but the original is fun AND legitimately great entertainment, with identifiable, enjoyable characters that possess clear motivations, a narrative that goes from A to B to C in a logical fashion, and action/adventure scenes that don't seem transplanted in from other screenplays. Sure, it's got continuity errors and things you can pick apart, but it's got an internal consistency that keeps those things from ever being a major problem.
More importantly, it also offers clear evidence that sequels maybe shouldn't exist. It was a perfectly timed release, not only providing a more family friendly summer blockbuster that had been lacking in previous summers (1992's top draw was Batman Returns, where Burton was less interested in the younger fans, and the #2 film for the summer was the R rated Lethal Weapon 3; 1991's top pick was the R rated T2, 1990's was the adult targeted Ghost...), but taking advantage of the advances in CGI that allowed for new FX that never could have been done before. Terminator 2, Death Becomes Her, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Memoirs of an Invisible Man (don't laugh, go watch that movie again - the FX are flawless and still jaw-dropping in spots)... these movies had been instrumental in the development of this new tech, and we hadn't yet gotten to the point where we'd take this stuff for granted - it was still incredibly impressive, and its makers were still given the time to do it right. Enter Spielberg, who had the best of the best at his disposal - Stan Winston, Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett worked in tandem to bring dinosaurs to life, fulfilling the dreams of every kid (even the ones who were now adults) who wanted to see one in action but had to settle for cartoons and illustrations for as long as they could recall.
And under the direction of a master like Spielberg, he made the introduction of each of its on-screen species count. When the tour doesn't get a look at the Dilophosaurus, it's a fine way to convey the fact that Hammond's dreams had plenty of kinks to work out (and set up a classic Goldblum line), but it also allows Spielberg to save their appearance for a kill scene, giving us awe AND a scare within seconds of each other. The T-Rex's entrance is forever going to make those lists of all-time classic movie moments (cliff continuity be damned), and when it appears later devouring some prey, it's again moments after we've been floored by the appearance of yet another new species (the gala, gala, Gallimimus). It's so carefully orchestrated that you might not even realize that you never actually see a Velociraptor in its entirety until the movie's almost over - the danger they present has been established through dialogue over and over throughout the movie, so that the first time they show up with the intent to harm one of our heroes (Ellie, right after she turns the power on), it's a truly terrifying moment - possibly the scariest one Spielberg pulled off since Ben Gardner's head floated into frame in Jaws.
Which brings us to why the sequels were so lacking. Each one offered new species for us to enjoy (in Jurassic World's case, one that was made up entirely), but couldn't benefit from that perfect balance of "this is something entirely new and I am blown away" and "this is pretty scary." All it could really offer was the latter, but increasing the number of jump scares and offering more violent deaths puts Lost World and the others in the same territory as a slasher film sequel. Such scares, however well executed, don't create the sort of appreciation that the original film inspired, so the followups primarily coast on our love for the first and little more. Each had a hook, sure, but the main thrill of seeing these things come to life was gone. Just as you can only lose your virginity once, you only get one chance to see your first photo realistic dinosaur eat a guy.
Interestingly, Lost World spends the least effort trying to give us the lesser thrill of seeing new species, and it's probably the most successful followup. There are stegosauruses and compys, neither of which is seen in the original, but they are both contained to one sequence each (well, the compys get two if you count the brief opening scene) and forgotten. Instead, it just offers more of the dinos we loved in the original - TWO T-Rexes (plus a baby) instead of one, and a BUNCH of raptors instead of three. It doesn't even bring back the Dilophosaurus, even though the film's plot (another island where the dinos were actually bred/raised before being brought to the park) suggests we should be seeing all fifteen of InGen's species in action. But it gives us some killer sequences, most famously the trailer/cliff setpiece that serves as the film's first appearance of the two Rexes. And Spielberg gives us some great moments, like the grass parting as raptors advance on their prey, and the terrific bit when Julianne Moore checks for dinos, sees nothing and then nearly gets the little girl killed when she gives her the all-clear. As a hero, Ian Malcolm proves that he's best at being the comic relief, but the supporting cast is a lot of fun, particularly Pete Postlethwaite as a bored game hunter who finally has a chance to hunt something new, and Peter Stormare as one of the InGen mercs who gets devoured by the "cute" little compys.
But its reputation is not a good one, and while there are several areas in which you can assign the blame (the darker tone, the lack of the more heroic/interesting Alan Grant, etc), I think it really comes down to two things. One is that it's a Steven Spielberg movie and thus should be a lot better. Throw anyone else's name on it (Colin Trevorrow's, perhaps) and its RT score improves, because we'd prefer our Spielberg imitations to be done by people who aren't Spielberg himself. I mean, the guy has one of the best track records in movie history; I'd put Lost World in his bottom five and I still more or less like the damn thing (though have zero defense for its existence), so it's hard not to be disappointed that he did what he wouldn't do for Jaws or ET, making a sequel himself (his only other sequels are the Indiana Jones movies, which are kind of special cases since they're basically partnerships with George Lucas). You'd think that his return - and he certainly didn't need the money - would be a sign that he was going to make the Temple of Doom to the original's Raiders, but he made... well, the Jaws 2 to the first's Jaws. It's enjoyable enough to not ask for your money back, while also proving that this is not a series that needs to continue.
And yet they did. In 2001 the series had its low point with Jurassic Park III, which Spielberg didn't direct, handing the reins to Joe Johnston of Rocketeer and Rocketeer fame. It was an interesting choice; Johnston's filmography was until that point filled only with kid-friendly PG films, many of which had creative use of special FX, suggesting JP3 would be more in line with the original than the darker, less inspired sequel. But instead it wasn't really much of anything. The movie seemed bizarrely stripped down (someone compared it to a DTV movie that got released in theaters), with only eight or nine characters in the movie and the odd decision to kill off everyone that dies within the first 40 minutes, making the final 50 an endless, event-free chase. The only possible expendable character in the film's back half is Billy, who inexplicably survives a massive attack by the pteranodons, who along with the Spinosaurus serve as the big ticket "new" dinos to play alongside the usual T-Rex and raptor foes.
The main problem with this one, besides not offering us anything new (the pteranodons are one thing, because they fly, but the alleged big draw is the Spinosaurus, who is used and even looks like a T-Rex, so it's not particularly novel) and having the worst FX in the series, is that it's so pointless. It's the same island as Lost World, so there's nothing new to see, and the new characters are a shrieking Téa Leoni and a bored William H. Macy (who was vocal about his displeasure with the film's endless rewriting) as an estranged couple who hires Alan Grant (yay!) to help them find their son, who has been missing on the island for eight weeks. I'm not sure how I can believe a kid could survive on his own for eight DAYS let alone weeks, considering how quickly the group suffers casualties after landing, but it just makes this concept fall even flatter - if he could survive that long on his own, surely he'll last a few more hours with adults helping him along. And none of them are going to die, so the mission has zero stakes. The gun-toting jerks they bring along to help are far more interesting, and Johnston kills two of them instantly and the third shortly thereafter, so the movie gives us nothing. Its best setpiece is one that was cut from the first movie and revived here, which speaks volumes of its overall quality.
And the ending! The movie has no real climax - it just sort of stops, with a bunch of army guys showing up out of nowhere to save the day and credits rolling a few seconds later. I still recall sitting in the theater thinking "Okay, this movie has kind of sucked so far, but now we're gonna get a big finale!" when the raptors surrounded the heroes, only to be stunned to be looking at credits less than two minutes later. At 92 minutes it's a good half hour shorter than any of the other films, and to this day I'm not sure if they just cut it down to the bone, or knew they had a piece of junk on their hands and opted to make it the perfect length for USA and TBS broadcasts, unlike the others which would require a longer programming block. It's basically a SyFy movie anyway, so it seemed they embraced that aspect and made it just as long as your Sharknadosand Megacroc vs Super Spiderzilla or whatever the hell. Then again even those reward your suffering by blowing something up real good in the final minutes.
In fact, I suspect the reason Jurassic World is connecting as well as it has so far is because it's the first sequel to give a big, satisfying ending. Sure, it's just copying the original's climax (at one point Chris Pratt even stands in an Alan Grant-like pose in front of the three others - again a woman and two kids) but with more dinos to show off, but that's infinitely better than a bone-headed, nonsensical and disconnected finale in San Diego (Lost World) or nothing (JP3). It's so satisfying on that "summer popcorn movie" level that many have forgotten or at least forgiven the movie's insane number of lapses that occur prior to it. I mean, there's turn off your brain entertainment, and then there's this, which at times asks you to actually remove your brain and leave it in the car. This is the sort of movie where a woman runs in high heels through mud without ever even stumbling, because it's THAT dumb - but when the T-Rex and raptor team up to fight a giant ass lab experiment dino called an Indominous Rex, no one really cares anymore.
But how much more satisfying would that ending be if the 110 minutes before it were as solid? What if the journey to get to that point weren't riddled with confusing plot turns, even less coherent character behavior and decisions like spending sixty seconds of screentime annihilating a woman who didn't deserve it, but letting the de facto human villain die off-screen? What if that much-discussed and anticipated moment where Chris Pratt rides alongside some raptors were that character's dream coming true, as opposed to something he was severely against happening and only doing because no one else really could? What if Bryce Dallas Howard's character learned her lesson about family over work and saved her nephews herself, instead of them basically rescuing themselves only for her to put them in danger once again almost instantly? I mean, yeah, it's great that they nailed the ending, an area that screwed up the other movies, but did they have to do such a lousy job leading up to it? And, like III, it failed to remember that dino-free action isn't necessarily taboo - the original's fence climbing scene is one of its most suspenseful sequences and it doesn't have any dinos near them, and the trailer part in Lost World would work just as well if the T-Rexes had just left after knocking it over the cliff. When I think of that scene, I think about Julianne Moore on the glass, Richard Schiff trying to get the ropes attached in time... not the giant dinosaurs making matters worse. There isn't a single scene in Jurassic World where something besides a dino might kill someone, which seems like a missed opportunity for a functional theme park (why not have the Mosasaurus tank shatter and put those punters at risk of drowning? Throw some Jaws 3 into the mix?).
The baffling script and confused viewpoints have resulted in the biggest opening of all time and other records that are meaningless to everyone but studio execs, so there will be a Jurassic Park 5 within four years. As far as they're concerned, making money is the same thing as getting it right, and quitting while they're ahead has never been an option in Hollywood (especially at Universal, also going ahead with another Fast & Furious movie, an even more shortsighted move when you consider the Pyrrhic victory they scored with Furious 7). To paraphrase that guy from that one movie: "They're so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they don't stop to think if they should." The fact that the movies keep making money even though very few people genuinely seem to like them down the road (hence all of the "Finally, Jurassic World is a good sequel!" talk that will be retracted in a few years) isn't really a concern to anyone calling the shots.
Will there ever be a truly great Jurassic sequel that measures up to the original, offering a real narrative and characters we care about beyond our association with the actors playing them? Doubtful. Does my and many other fans' love of the first film ensure we'll keep being optimistic that they can, and plunk down increasingly more dollars to find out on opening weekend? Almost certainly. It's amazing how much goodwill can be achieved with a movie that scored one of its biggest moments with nothing more than a ripple in a cup of water - so much that three disappointing followups haven't killed our enthusiasm for a world where dinosaurs still exist.